Preparing for stormy skies (part 3): the RAAF’s strike power beyond 2040
20 Aug 2018|

The immediate future of the RAAF’s strike and air combat capability seems clear. We’re getting 72 F-35A joint strike fighters that will form the heart of the force into the 2040s and serve alongside up to 12 E/A-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft.

The RAAF could order a fourth squadron of F-35s, but as I highlighted in part 1, a better option is to sustain and upgrade the 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets to Block III standard by the mid-2020s. Given the low cost of that upgrade, and the capability improvements it delivers, there seems little justification for retiring the F/A-18Fs in favour of an additional squadron of F-35s.

But what will come after the F-35s, Super Hornets and Growlers? It seems less likely that a very expensive, and lengthy, fifth-generation project, leading to the acquisition of limited numbers of F-35s in the early 2020s, will be followed by an ‘exquisite’ platform emerging out of an equally expensive and lengthy sixth-generation fighter project sometime in the 2040s.

The US and European future combat aircraft projects seem to be heading away from 5.5 or 6th generation language. They’re emphasising a system-of-systems model that has multiple manned and unmanned platforms operating as a networked whole across multiple operational domains. That approach has two benefits: faster acquisition of new capabilities and the ability to keep pace with adversaries’ capability development at a lower overall cost.

For Australia (and the US), long range and high speed are important criteria. Short- to medium-range tactical platforms are less useful given how far away we are from likely focal areas such as the South China Sea and maritime choke points in Southeast Asia. Our thinking therefore needs to shift from the ‘sea–air gap’ mindset towards expeditionary airpower and power projection.

The F-35’s potential weakness is its limited range and payload. To deliver long-range effects with standoff weapons, the F-35 is dependent on either forward basing arrangements or forward-deployed (and thus vulnerable) airborne refuellers. That approach to the ‘defence of Australia’ mission is showing its age in the face of hypersonic land-attack cruise missiles, counterspace threats, precision ballistic-missile systems, and cyberattacks.

Certainly, acquiring long-range standoff weapons for the F-35 may mitigate the problem over the next 20 years. But if we’re talking about what follows the F-35, our thinking shouldn’t be constrained by a fixation on tactical fighter platforms.

It’s time to move away from contemplating a like-for-like replacement for the F-35. That will demand some willingness to challenge orthodoxy—about the type of platforms we acquire, the number we acquire, and the role they may have in a more contested and uncertain future.

The option of manned–unmanned teaming—also known as the ‘loyal wingman’ concept—opens up many possibilities. It would involve using manned aircraft to control a swarm of unmanned combat air systems (UCAS) that penetrate an adversary’s anti-access and area denial (A2AD) envelope, defeat its air-defence systems, and then deliver precision effects with advanced, high-speed standoff weapons or non-kinetic weapons such as electronic warfare, cyberattack and directed-energy weapons.

That vision implies, of course, that the US and other key partners do in fact develop UCAS that Australia can acquire. The US Navy has already had the opportunity to do so under the UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike) project and has demonstrated advanced capabilities with the Northrop Grumman X-47B. However, UCLASS was transformed into an unmanned tanker (a role secured by Boeing’s MQ-25 Stingray) for the Carrier-Based Aerial Refuelling System (CBARS) because of concern within the navy about the role of unmanned platforms as a potential competitor to manned combat aircraft—particularly the F-35C. The US Air Force too seems to have pulled back from embracing UCAS with its withdrawal from the J-UCAS project, despite demonstrated capability with its X-45, perhaps for similar reasons.

Instead, the US seems to be focusing on a long-range platform, more akin to a bomber, that can exploit the partnership of manned and unmanned systems. That’s the approach under the air force’s Penetrating Counter Air project. Likewise, in Europe, future combat aircraft like BAE’s Tempest and the Franco-German fighter jet plan emphasise a manned fighter controlling unmanned wingmen, possibly derived from the British Taranis and French NEUron platforms.

As James Mugg noted back in 2016, thinking about manned–unmanned teaming would suggest that the unmanned component—the UCAS—needs to extend the manned fighter rather than replace it. That means it needs to be cheap, autonomous and capable of working as a swarm, perhaps via artificial intelligence, and ultimately be expendable. Mugg highlights the target-drone concept as promoted by Kratos Defense, stating:

The concept of large, production-type UCAS is still hampered by the existing paradigm of fewer, more expensive aircraft. An interesting new development is the USAF’s effort to develop a cheap target-drone style UCAS … The demonstrator is expected to operate at high subsonic speeds, with a 2,800km range and 225kg of payload capacity … [at] a targeted unit cost [of] just US$2–3m.

So, given these developments, it’s possible to speculate on how Australia’s strike and air combat capabilities should evolve. We should focus first on transitioning from a dependency on small numbers of expensive, high-end manned aircraft like the F-35 to a mix of manned and unmanned systems working together, with the latter extending the former’s capabilities.

The future manned platform might be larger than a traditional fighter—closer, perhaps, to an F-111 or even a B-21 in size—to enjoy longer range and greater payload. That platform can use the swarming UCAS to attack at long range, deep inside an adversary’s A2AD perimeter.

If we emphasise long-range, high payload and manned–unmanned teaming, we start to close gaps in our force structure around long-range strike, and can better deter any adversary. But it can’t just be an air capability.

The future RAAF must fully embrace operations in which a manned or unmanned platform can take advantage of sensors and weapons across a variety of domains. It might be that, rather than an exquisite sixth-generation fighter, the path forward for the RAAF is a long-range, survivable, networked system of systems in the air, in space, in cyberspace and across the electromagnetic spectrum, of which the platform is just one part.